Funeral Rites: Mesoamerican Funeral Rites

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Mesoamerican peoples practiced a rich variety of funeral rites based on a fundamental and widely shared vision of death as a regenerative social and cosmic power. Several types of sacred practices associated with death existed from the Preclassic period (2500 bce200 ce) until the arrival of the Spanish. The discussion that follows will survey two general kinds of rites associated with the dead; funerary rites and mortuary rites. Funerary rites were those actions performed after the death of an individual. Their goal was to dispose of the body, ensure the arrival of the soul to the netherworld, and socialize the loss. Mortuary rites, on the other hand, equipped individuals with an object or offering. The more common examples are sacrificial offerings, which were performed since very early times.

A third type of death ritual appears in the archaeological and ethnohistorical evidence during the late Postclassic period (9001521 ce). In this ritual practice the remains of the deceased were not actually present. These were divinatory rites aimed at either causing the death of an enemy or rival, as well as rites aimed at protecting someone from magical aggressions and bad omens. A large numbers of rites dedicated to deities associated with death and dying were also widely practiced throughout Mesoamerican history.

Funerals in Agricultural Societies

The first agricultural settlements were consolidated during the Preclassic period. Archaeological representations of skeleton-like beings in motion and images that show the duality of life and death date from this period. These are the earliest references to a belief in life after death.

Tlatilco, in the central highlands, is one of the settlements showing the most complex funerary practices. In this site, which flourished around 1000 bce, bodies were buried under inhabited rooms, a practice that has been interpreted as an attempt at preserving the force of the deceased in the domestic space. The bodies of the dead were accompanied by funerary goods of different qualities, and in some instances the remains of a dog were buried next to the deceased.

In western Mexico, funerary practices were unusually important; most interesting is the construction of "shaft tombs," which consisted of a vertical tunnel leading to one or more funerary chambers excavated in volcanic tuff. The region has been sacked by grave robbers, and only a few intact graves have been explored, such as the one found in Huitzilapa, Jalisco, dated to 65 ce. The excavation of that site revealed a seven-meter-deep shaft and two funerary chambers. Three individuals had been laid in each of them, together with extraordinary pottery. Researchers have speculated that this was the burial shaft of an important family.

Other findings in western Mexico are also important, such as those in Chupícuaro, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, a settlement characterized by its funerary arrangements. The remains of dogs were found next to human skeletons in excavated burial sites, suggesting that, since earlier times, these animals were considered as companions in the journey to the netherworld. Similarly, various offerings consisting of garments and tools the deceased may have used while living were found next to adults, while necklaces and musical instruments were placed in the tombs of children.

In the Maya region, individuals were buried near domestic spaces or ceremonial buildings. The bodies were laid in graves or funerary chambers and in some cases placed inside pots. While some burial sites contain a single individual, others contain several, with articulated skeletal remains and disarticulated bones. This variety could be attributed to regional funerary variations and to the identity of the dead. Offerings of varying quality were usually placed in the sites, and on special occasions the bodies were covered with red paint or a green stone was placed in the mouth of the deceased. The latter custom lasted into later periods.

As for mortuary rites, the collection of "trophy skulls" seems to begin at this time, as evidenced in the Maya region, the Toluca Valley, and Tlatlico. Bone fragments found at the latter site present evidence of cuts, showing that bodies were also used for other purposes. With time, such practices would become fundamental throughout Mesoamerica.

Funerary Rites in the Classical Cities (200600 ce)

Important cities were created during this period including the magnificent cosmopolitan center, Teotihuacan, which was built as a replica of the sacred universe. During an era of splendor, known as the Classic period, Teotihuacanos practiced elaborate funerary rituals. Archaeological records show the careful preparation of the deceased body, primarily in the form of funerary bundles and offerings. Typically, individuals were buried under the floor of homes of both commoners and elites, and the tombs included funerary offerings. Cremations took place in some areas of the city, a funerary practice associated with the élite.

Archaeological work in Teotihuacan has revealed that it had political and cultural relations with many others parts of Mesoamerica. For example, different funerary patterns existed in various parts of the city, especially in what is referred to as the Oaxaca barrio. Excavations have uncovered a number of tombs placed under the floor of domestic areas. The graves, in the style of the great Monte Albán culture that flourished far to the south of Teotihuacan, were characterized by the presence of an access with doorjambs and glyphs carved in the stone. Precious figurines and urns done in the Oaxacan style also accompanied the burials of human beings.

The tradition of the shaft tombs continued in the western regions of Mesoamerica, while new ritual forms also began to emerge. One example of such a change can be found in Loma Alta and Loma Guadalupe, funerary islands located in Michoacán. In the former, individual were buried, and in some instances the rites included the cremation and subsequent pulverization of the bones. Loma Guadalupe served as a sort of cemetery, and several central tombs were surrounded by a series of smaller ones. The sepulchers could be used several times, and in some instances bones were removed to be transported elsewhere. An area devoted to food preparation has also been identified in the complex, perhaps associated with a ceremony that complemented the burial.

Classic Maya culture developed the elaborate practice of constructing royal tombs. In Calakmul, in the Mexican state of Campeche, the tomb of the ruler known as Jaguar-Claw was explored by a multidisciplinary team that concluded that the funeral bundle had been set on a wooden frame and finely decorated with marine elements. The exploration was performed so carefully that it allowed for the recovery of residues of lime, canvas, palm, and resins that accompanied the body of the individual, which had been adorned with jadeite jewels and a funerary mask. Jaguar-Claw was buried with two companions, a male child and a woman wearing a headdress, a funerary treatment associated with the élite.

Two examples of luxurious tombs were found in Palenque: the tomb of King Pacal and that of the so-called Red Queen. In the first site, the remains of the ruler were set in a monolithic sarcophagus; the cover was carved with the image of a character from whose chest grew a maize plant. The king was dressed in a luxurious green stone mask and was accompanied by several offerings and by the remains of individuals sacrificed at his burial. The monumental funerary pyramid was built specifically to house his tomb. The Red Queen was also buried in a monolithic sarcophagus with treasures made of jade, pearls, and shells. Her body was covered with cinabrio, a red mineral that colored the grave. Access to the site was through a set of stairs, and several companions were also sacrificed in her honor. The identity of the Red Queen still remains unknown, and she could be related to King Pakal.

Oaxaca was another area where funerals played an important role. Monte Albán, one of the main sites in the region, is characterized by burial sites placed in yards or rooms. The quality of the burials was a function of the identity of the deceased, since tombs range from very simple ones to those showing complex funerary architecture, including underground structures. Offerings were of great quality and included urns with figurines representing the gods and remains of dogs. The tombs were reused, and each time a new body was placed in them the skeletal remains already there were piled up to make more room.

The lavish funerary architecture developed for the ruling Zapotec class seems to re-create the opulence of the palaces. A classic example is the tomb at the archaeological site known as Huijazoo, an important underground complex. Nine steps lead to a vestibule that opened into two chambers and a yard that culminated with the main funeral chamber. Mitla is another Oaxacan city famous for its lavish funerals and the cross-shaped tombs placed under its palaces. Centuries later, in the Postclassic period, Zapotec tombs were reused by the Mixtecs, who used them to inter their leaders with offerings that are veritable treasures. Such is the case of the famous "Tomb Seven" in Monte Albán.

Oaxacan evidence related to domestic settings is also interesting because human burials were placed under the floors of homes that continued to be inhabited by the descendants of the deceased. The living and the dead shared a daily common space linking generation with generation.

Regional Capitals and Funerary Rites

Upon the fall of Teotihuacan during what has become known as the Epiclassic period (650900 ce) a process of decentralization in Mesoamerica led to the formation of potent, regional city-states such as Xochicalco, Cholula, and Tajin. Xochicalco, in the state of Morelos has yielded impressive sepulchers inside religious buildings and domestic settings. In the context of sacred architecture, the persons were buried with fine anthropomorphic plates and other green-stone jewelry, while domestic burials included ceramic offerings. The site is also known because of an artificial terrace called "the cemetery," where twenty-one burial sites and a "trophy skull" were found.

Cholula was another important city in the highlands where funerals had great importance. Archaeological findings have revealed that funerary practices were carried out in relation to age, gender, and possibly the social occupation of the deceased. The city showed an increment in cremation practices, as demonstrated by thirty urns filled with the remains of bones that had been exposed to the fire and placed on the southern end of the great pyramid.

Another majestic city of that time was Tajín, on the Gulf of Mexico. Besides funerary sites, the evidence from the city exemplifies the importance of sacrifice and postmortem treatment, especially decapitation, which played a fundamental role in ritual ball games.

Archaeology, Historical Sources, and Funerals

During the Postclassic period (12001521 ce) war became uncommonly important, as did expansionism and sacrificial practices. There is ample evidence of funerary practices from this period, such as the ample historical record devoted to describing the funerals of the ruling class. Just as there are coincidences in the beliefs in an afterlife throughout the Mesoamerican region, there are also some similarities in funerary practices among the three most powerful groups of the period: the Maya, Tarasc, and Mexica, or Aztec. For the three peoples, two variables determined the type of funerary rite to be followed: the cause of death and social position. In the case of the Mexica, the teyolía, or soul, of the deceased had four basic destinations. Mictlan, the underworld, was the destination of those who died of common illnesses or old age. Those who died for a reason associated with water traveled to Tlalocan, a place of plenty that was presided over by Tláloc, the god of rain. It was believed that the soul of nursing children traveled to the place known as Chichihuauhcuahco, where they were fed by a nursing tree. Warriors who fell in battle went to the Sun Heaven, as did women who died giving birth. It was believed that the former received the sun at dawn and drove it towards its zenith, where they handed it over to the latter. To each form of death there was a corresponding funerary geography and a special treatment for the corpse.

Those who died of common illness or old age were cremated or buried, depending on their place in the social hierarchy. Upon the death of an individual, the body was washed and a green stone was placed in its mouth to symbolize the heart of the deceased, where the soul was located. The body was covered with blankets that were tied, forming a funerary bundle that received offerings useful in the journey to the afterlife, while the geographic instructions that would allow the soul to complete its cosmic destiny were detailed. If the deceased was a member of the élite, the body was cremated and placed next to offerings in a wooden funerary pyre that included a red dog. If it was a ruler, companions were sacrificed next to him, and their hearts were cast into the fire. The ashes were collected and placed in a container that was to be buried. Archaeological evidence from the Great Temple in Tenochtitlan shows that cremated remains of the dignitaries could be divided into several urns and buried in different places. On the other hand, historical sources suggest that when the individual was a commoner, the body was buried with very simple offerings.

The bodies of those who died by water were clad with paper adornments and had seeds placed in their mouths. The body was buried directly into the earth, as if it were a seed. Apparently, nursing children were also buried. It was believed that the nursing tree that would care for them was located in Tlalocan.

When a woman died in labor, she received a particular funerary arrangement. Her body was washed, dressed in new garments, and taken to a special temple for burial. The body had to be cared for, since some of its parts were believed to have magical powers. The bodies of warriors fallen in battle were also treated differently, even though their soul journeyed to the sun just like those of laboring women. Warrior funerals were collective acts and included processions and dances performed by the relatives of the deceased. Usually, the corpses were left in the battlefield, while bundles of wood representing the deceased were built in Tenochtitlan; the bundles were cremated after receiving offerings and orations, and the ashes were buried in a special place. These effigies of the funerary bundle allowed for the socialization of the death.

Funerary goods offered to the deceased can be classified as follows: (1) objects that were part of the funerary dowry; these objects signified the sacred exchange of energies between the life and death of the individual and Mexicas believed that this items could help the soul in the journey; (2) offerings to be handed to the deities of the netherworld once the deceased arrived there; (3) goods that functioned to make the ritual work effectively, such as the wood used in cremation. In more elaborated funerals, sacred practices such as music and ritual dance were common. It is also evident that some élite funerals included the sacrifice and self-sacrifice of special companions of the deceased. Ethnohistorical documents relate that the immediate and extended aftermath of a funeral was regulated by ritual. There were impositions of specific periods of mourning as well as the crafting and delivery of elaborated speeches aimed at consoling the family of the deceased.

Several tombs found in the Maya area had been set in places of worship, temples, and under living spaces. Similarly to what transpired in the central highland, the historical record confirms the preparation of the body and the placing in the mouth of a stone or maize kernels. Also, some offerings seem to be associated with the needs of the deceased in the journey to the netherworld. Although individuals were usually buried, other treatments have also been documented depending on the identity, occupation, or cause of death. The tombs of commoners were usually dug under homes or behind them, and the dwellings were abandoned, unless they were inhabited by many people. The deceased could be buried with the tools they had used in life for their occupations; for example, priests were buried with their sacred books.

Among the Maya, cremation was a late practice that extended into colonial times and was reserved for the élites. Friar Diego de Landa, who made a vast historical record in Yucatan during his labor of evangelization, wrote about the cremation of the Lords of Izamal and how their ashes were placed in pots, with temples were built above them. He also tells how the ashes of dignitaries were kept as relics inside of statues. As for the Lords of Cocom, de Landa records an unusual treatment for the bodies, which were decapitated, cooked, and defleshed; the ritual culminated with the modeling, in bitumen, of the likeness of the deceased over its bones. The archaeological record shows variation in funeral practices, often associated with religion or the identity of the individual. Thus it is possible to find graves, caves, funeral constructions, funerary chambers, sarcophagi, and vessels, all used as graves for the inhabitants of the Maya region.

In the powerful western state of Michoacán, funerals were very similar to those of the Mexica. When a dignitary died, the body was prepared and richly clad. A second funerary bundle was prepared with blankets and placed over the deceased. According to the colonial account of Friar Jerónimo de Alcalá, during the funeral of the king some forty individuals were sacrificed to serve their lord in the netherworld. The body was cremated and the ashes collected in blankets and adorned with a turquoise mask and other jewelry. This bundle was buried at the foot of the most important temple. The ritual was very solemn, and on subsequent days a large portion of the population was in mourning. In contrast, commoners were buried with simple offerings that reflected their social status.

The great diversity and wealth of the Mesoamerican funerary rites contrasts with the standardization imposed by the Christian religion after the arrival of the Spanish. Death in war and epidemics, together with the imposition of funeral taxes and the prohibition of crematory practices, were difficult to assimilate for the indigenous population. With time, syncretism developed and new funerary practices emerged. Today, it is still possible to identify in some communities some elements associated with pre-Columbian beliefs, such as the notion of the dog as a companion to the underworld, the tradition of processions and ritual games, and the offering of food, copal, and other gifts. These elements, combined with some that are typically Spanish, and the new ritual forms represent the wealth of funerary customs of modern Mexico.

See Also

Mesoamerican Religions, articles on Classic Cultures, Formative Cultures, Mythic Themes, Postclassic Cultures, Pre-Columbian Religions.


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Becker, Marshall Joseph. "Caches as Burials; Burials as Caches: The Meaning of Ritual Deposits among the Classic Period Lowland Maya." In Recent Studies in Pre-Columbian Archaeology, edited by Nicholas J. Saunders and Olivier de Montmollin, vol. 1, pp. 117139. Oxford, 1988.

Cabrero, Teresa. La muerte en el occidente del México prehispánico. Mexico City, 1988.

Durán, Diego. Historia de las Indias de la Nueva España e Islas de tierra firme, vol. 1. Mexico City, 1995. The funerals of Mexica warriors and kings are fully described in this historical account.

García Moreno, Renata, and Josefina Granados. "Tumbas reales de Calakmul." Arqueología Mexicana 42 (2000): 2833.

Lagunas, Zaíd, Carlos Serrano, and Sergio López Alonso. Enterramientos humanos de la zona arqueológica de Cholula, Puebla. Mexico City, 1976.

Landa, Diego. Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán. Mexico City, 1938. Historical record written in Yucatán after the Conquest.

López Alonso, Sergio. "Cremación y entierros en vasija en Cholula prehispánica." Anales del INAH (1973): 111118.

López Luján, Leonardo, Robert Cobean, and Alba Guadalupe Mastache. Xochicalco y Tula. Mexico City, 1995.

López Mestas, Lorena, and Jorge Ramos de la Vega. "La tumba de Huitzilapa." Arqueología Mexicana 30 (1998): 7071.

Malvido, Elsa, Gregory Pereira, and Vera Tiesler. El cuerpo humano y su tratamiento mortuorio. Mexico City, 1997. Topics such as death, the concept of the human body, funerary and mortuary rituals from pre-Hispanic times to contemporary Mexico are described in this compilation.

Manzanilla, Linda, and Carlos Serrano, eds. Prácticas funerarias en la Ciudad de los Dioses los enterramientos humanos de la antigua Teotihuacan. Mexico City, 1990. Remarkable compilation of Teotihuacan's funerary practices. Includes new archaeological findings and the analysis of human remains recovered in this sacred place.

Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo. Muerte a filo de obsidiana. Mexico City, 1980. A book extraordinarily written, focused on the afterlife notions and funerary rituals among the Mexicas.

McAnany, Patricia. Living with the Ancestors: Kingship and Kinship in Ancient Maya Society. Austin, Tex., 1995.

Murillo, Silvia. La vida a través de la muerte. Mexico City, 2002. The author skillfully brings together ethnohistorical and archaeological data on funerary customs from the Toluca Valley, Mexico.

Rattray, Evelyn. Entierros y ofrendas en Teotihuacan. Excavaciones, inventario y patrones mortuorios. Mexico City, 1997. Exhaustive inventory of Teotihuacan's burial and funerary offerings.

Romano, Arturo. "Sistema de enterramiento." In Antropología física, época prehispánica, edited by Javier Romero Molina, pp. 83112. Mexico City, 1974.

Ruz Lhuillier, Alberto. Costumbres funerarias de los antiguos mayas. Mexico City, 1989. A classic book with an exceptional inventory of archaeological funerary findings, historical information, and contemporary data on the Maya culture.

Sahagún, Bernardino. Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España. Mexico City, 1997. Account written after the Conquest. This book is the most important testimony of the Nahua culture, including the afterlife notions and ritual life.

Ximena ChÁvez Balderas (2005)

Translated from Spanish by Fernando Feliu-Moggi